Reflections on the Politics of the Global 'Rolling-News' Television Genre
by Mehdi Semati
The latter part of the twentieth century was marked by the proliferation of culture and communication, the explosion of information technologies and channels, and the expansion of the cultural industries. These developments in communication have had significant socio-political impacts internationally. The recent advancements in satellite technologies with the accompanying expansion of activities in international television news markets have been among these developments. Specifically, the ability for instantaneous media coverage of events across the globe has brought to the fore the role media play in the conduct of foreign policy. Labels such as "the CNN effect" have become shorthand for explaining that role. In this article, I address international "rolling-news" (or "all-news") journalism as a specific television genre. In doing so I first address the concept of "the CNN effect." Second, I put the expansion of CNN in the larger context of the political economy of global television news. Third, I discuss some of the features of contemporary transnational television news and specific characteristics of the rolling-news format as a genre. In the concluding section, I discuss some of the political implications of the proliferation of international rolling-news television for democratic values and processes for a transnational civil society. While it is easy to paint an alarming picture of the rolling-news technology as a corporate- and technologically-driven global political agent, I want to point (cautiously) as well to its potential as a facilitating force in the emergence of a global democratic polity.
"The CNN Effect" Thesis
First, when the CNN effect is conceptualized as an accelerant, the assumption is that the latest global communication technologies deprive diplomats of the luxury of time for careful deliberation. Within the context of transnational satellite technologies, "real-time" journalism is the defining term that characterizes many journalistic practices subject to the principle of speed. This principle necessitates instant analysis and response. As Nicholas Burns, State Department spokesperson, states, "In our day, as events unfold half a world away, it is not unusual for CNN State Department correspondent Steve Hurst to ask me for a reaction before we've had a chance to receive a more detailed report from our embassy and consider carefully our options."(2) Second, when we conceptualize the CNN effect as an impediment to foreign policy, we attend to the dramatic and emotional impact of images. Here the concern is the public's emotional response to particular images (e.g., ghastly images of death and misery). The decision by the Clinton administration in 1993 to terminate the intervention in Somalia, some argue, was based on the public's reaction to such televised images (see Seib, 1997).
Finally, the most familiar way to conceptualize the CNN effect is to view it as an "agenda-setting" agency. Mohamed Sacirbey, Bosnian ambassador to the United Nations, once said: "If you look at how humanitarian relief is delivered in Bosnia you see that those areas where the TV cameras are most present are the ones that are the best fed, the ones that receive the most medicines. While on the other hand, many of our people have starved and died of disease and shelling where there are no TV cameras" (cited in Seib 1997, p. 90). It has been reported that the decision to intervene in Somalia in the first place was based on the press coverage of human misery. As Marlin Fitzwater, Bush's press secretary, confessed about the Somalia policy decision: "After the election, the media had the free time [to cover Somalia] and that was when the pressure started building up. We heard it from every corner that something must be done. Finally, the pressure was too great. The president said, 'I just can't live with this for two months.' TV tipped us over the top at a time when the death rate [from starvation] was over a 100 a day" (quoted in Seib, 1997, p. 44). When the images of starvation, anarchy, and human misery appear on television screens, television becomes the de facto "must-do-something" framework for policy-makers.
Yet despite the obvious pressure of round-the-clock coverage as a complicating factor in the conduct of foreign policy, we cannot conclude that CNN's agenda-setting drives policy decisions. To take the case of "humanitarian crises" (e.g., Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda) for example, the evidence is contradictory at best. Livingston (1997) has demonstrated, for example, that the majority of humanitarian operations are conducted without much media attention. Livingston and Eachus (1995) have argued that the decision to intervene in Somalia was based more on diplomatic and bureaucratic operations than press coverage. These counter-examples suggest that in order to understand the political efficacy of CNN and the CNN effect thesis, we must examine the larger context of international global television news.
of Global Television News
2001 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo